A. Wood, Of Wings and Wheels: A Synthetic Study of the Biblical Cherubim

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Wood, Alice, Of Wings and Wheels: A Synthetic Study of the Biblical Cherubim (BZAW, 385; Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2008). Pp. xi + 253. Hardcover. US$105.00. ISBN 978-3-11-020528-2.

Alice Wood's helpful study of the biblical cherubim, Of Wings and Wheels, is divided into three parts: the biblical texts, comparative Semitic material, and archaeological evidence. Since the cherubim are primarily a biblical phenomenon, she prioritizes the biblical evidence, using it to set the parameters for what cherubim may or may not be, before appealing to extrabiblical sources to enhance and confirm her conclusions. While acknowledging that they have been much maligned in recent scholarship, she nonetheless employs historical and literary approaches because the cherubim are a historical and literary phenomenon. However, rather than adopting a rigid methodology, her approach varies according to the specific parameters of each text. Wood avoids any assessment of the historicity of the cherubim and dates her texts using a relative chronology that generally follows the scholarly consensus.

Wood subdivides her biblical analysis according to the general categories of cherubim in the Hebrew Bible: cherubim in the divine epithet ישב הכרבים, as images in the temple or tabernacle, and as animate heavenly beings. She begins her examination of the cherubim formula ישב הכרבים (pp. 9–22) with a critique of the standard positions. Wood rejects the classic rendering, “he who dwells with/between the cherubim,” since it relies too heavily on the synonymy of ישב and שכן as well as on the understanding of ישב as “to dwell.” She likewise rejects the alternate and generally agreed upon translation of Haran and Mettinger,[1] “enthroned upon the cherubim,” because of its heavy reliance on archaeology and its implied insertion of the preposition על between the two words following the LXX rendering, which she suggests is reliant on the emerging מרכבה tradition. Instead, Wood understands הכרבים and ישב to be in construct relationship, yielding a probable translation of “dweller of the cherubim,” with “ruler of the cherubim” as an alternate possibility (pp. 12–14). Here, it seems that Wood's alternative translations overlap conceptually, as YHWH who dwells with the cherubim is also the one who rules over them, evidenced in the text and by comparison with ANE texts and artifacts. Thus, the title may simultaneously evoke both meanings.

Next, Wood examines the cherubim as cultic images (pp. 22–50) in Exodus, Kings, Chronicles, and Ezekiel. She contends that the tabernacle texts present the cherubim as each having two wings spreading upward covering the כפרת, interpreting this covering apotropaically, and insightfully notes that they serve to screen off the space above the כפרת where YHWH will manifest himself (Exod 25:20–22). She also identifies the other cherubim figures on the tabernacle curtains as possible guardian figures that protect the sacred space from contamination. Regarding the temple texts, Wood argues that the cherubim in the Kings account are connected with the most holy space of the sanctuary and feature at thresholds and on walls, suggesting an apotropaic function. In many ways, the Chronicles account accords with that of 1 Kings, yet diverges by identifying YHWH as the chief architect of the temple in place of Hiram and Solomon, using the term מרכבה (“chariot”) and referring to a veil, embroidered with cherubim. Wood also suggests that the authors of Chronicles harmonize the three sanctuaries—the tabernacle, the one in Kings, and the second temple—and likewise borrow from the Ezekiel tradition “in order to accentuate the divine plan underlying each of them” (p. 48). Ezekiel 41:18–25 provides a much fuller account of the form and position of the cherubim, who appear in pairs with a palm tree between them and have two faces, one human and the other leonine (which may in fact be four, dependent on Ezek 1–11, since only two faces could be reasonably represented in profile).

Wood's analysis then progresses to the depiction of cherubim as heavenly beings (pp. 51–138), the bulk of which is taken up with the complicated portrayals of cherubim in Ezekiel's visions. In Gen 3:24, she contends that the cherubim, along with the seemingly animate and independent divine weapon, serve as boundary markers of the garden sanctuary as well as protectors of the sanctuary and the possibility of eternal life therein. In Ezek 28:11–19, although the king of Tyre claims to be a god, the text reminds him that he is merely a cherub, whose failure to protect the sanctuary, by blurring the boundaries between human and divine, warrants his expulsion from it. In the Song of David (2 Sam 22, Ps 18), a lone cherub appears as part of a storm theophany, ostensibly serving as YHWH's mount, upon which he returns to earth to rescue the speaker. Wood argues that together the cherub and the natural elements protect the deity when he leaves his heavenly abode, forming a moving tabernacle enabling YHWH to come to the rescue (though it is perhaps more likely that the natural elements are simply signs of divine power, rather than necessary for divine protection).

In her examination of Ezekiel's visions, Wood commendably argues for both a diachronic and synchronic reading of chs. 9–11. After a critique of previous approaches and a close reading of the Hebrew text that highlights its complexity and likely compositeness, she sets forth her criteria for identifying editorial activity: internal problems and the text's relationship to Ezek 1 and the LXX. Rather than trying to precisely identify each editorial layer (cf. Zimmerli),[2] Wood more modestly aims to isolate general patterns of editorial activity. She suggests that originally in Ezek 10 the cherub mentioned in v. 2 was an architectural feature of the temple, while all references to the cherubim and wheels under the throne are later insertions as is the association of the cherubim with the חיות (“beasts”) in Ezek 1. These insertions are designed to integrate the vehicle of Ezek 1 into the original narrative of the divine abandonment of the temple and to connect the חיות with the cherubim, in order to “organize originally independent visions into a unified collection” (p. 135). Synchronically, the text either uses “cherubim” as a label for different types of supernatural beings or suggests that these enigmatic creatures could transmogrify their appearances. The cherubim also serve both apotropaic and locomotive functions, protecting the divine sphere, serving as YHWH's throne bearers, and stressing universality and omnipotence as their four heads represent the four domains of YHWH's rule: humanity, wild animals, domestic animals, and birds. In addition, the cherubim vehicle becomes animated with heads, wings, and eyes. Here Wood is to be especially applauded for her methodological restraint, her clever and plausible reconstruction of this difficult text, and her complementary use of both diachronic and synchronic approaches.

In Part II (pp. 141–155), Wood examines the etymological data by surveying the sparse West Semitic evidence for potential cognates before turning to the more substantial Akkadian material and to Dhorme's 1926 article that suggests an intercessory role.[3] Wood offers a potential association with the substantive kurību, which functions as an apotropaic being and has non-human features. She suggests that the verb kārabu, connoting “to pray or to bless,” and the adjective kāribu, referring generically “to any statue fashioned in a position of prayer” (p. 152), are more dimly related. While noting the tenuousness of etymological arguments, she concludes that, if anything, comparative Semitics supports her apotropaic interpretation.

Wood begins Part III (pp. 157–204) by delimiting the archaeological survey. In the process, she makes the important point that foreign symbols and iconography may conjure up different associations when viewed from an Israelite perspective than when viewed by a native one (pp. 159–160). She is also careful not to read too much into the archaeological data, allowing it to answer such modest questions as: what are the possible physical appearances and cultic contexts of the cherub image? Wood identifies the cherubim as being originally quadrupedal winged supernatural beings who often occur in pairs on cultic appurtenances, temple walls and doors and with sacred vegetation, lions, and oxen. She limits her survey spatially to Israel and Judah because they are “by far the safest geographical boundaries” for comparative purposes (p. 164), and temporally from the tenth to the fourth centuries b.c.e., i.e., the earliest possible date for the Song of David and the probable date of Chronicles. After surveying the earlier Megiddo ivories in dialogue with Mettinger and Haran, she provides an overview (largely dependent on Keel and Uehlinger)[4] of the data from the Iron II to the Persian period, in which she identifies several different types of creatures that could qualify as cherubim, while dismissing winged human figures, who seem to be deities rather than tutelary beings. Neither figures resembling the creatures in Ezekiel's visions nor a cherubim throne are found in the extant iconography, outside of two early Megiddo ivories. Of the four types of winged quadrupeds—ram-headed winged lions, human-headed winged bulls, human-headed winged lions, and aquiline-headed winged lions—the latter two most closely conform to the biblical pattern. Appealing to Egyptian solar symbolism, in which human and eagle heads were interchangeable, Wood suggests that these two types may be “essentially the same type of creature” (p. 202), which in the final form of Ezekiel could “transcend their manufactured reality” and “transform into creatures whose physical form is difficult for the author to describe and almost impossible for readers to envision” (p. 204).[5] Her archaeological survey is cautious, helpful, and generally even-handed, though it could have benefitted from a survey of images resembling the divine throne in Ezek 1, even if that text is a composite creation.

Of Wings and Wheels is a fine piece of work, yet, like all works, is not entirely problem-free. At times more substantial scholarly references would have been helpful. For example, Wood occasionally makes general claims without supporting evidence (e.g., on p. 39 she makes an unsupported statement about the presence of lion figures at gateways). In addition, although her translations of the cherubim formula are indeed likely, she too quickly dismisses the alternate approaches, especially the traditional approach—which resembles her primary proposal, since “dweller of the cherubim” seems to be simply a more literal way of saying “he who dwells with the cherubim.” Her proposal in Part II that the šedu and lamassu are anthropomorphically presented, in response to Dhorme's identification of these figures with winged bulls, is problematic. While often presented anthropomorphically in an intercessory capacity, the šedu and lamassu are also presented in mixed forms as door guardians in Neo-Assyrian palaces and temples.[6] As supernatural bouncers, they may retain their intercessory function, since visitors must often go through them to get to the king or god. Despite these minor shortcomings, Wood's methodological modesty and restraint are laudable, even exemplary, and her careful and insightful work will be beneficial to all scholars interested in cherubim.

Michael Hundley, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

[1] M. Haran, Temples and Temple Service in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978), 247–9; T. N. D. Mettinger, “Yhwh Sabaoth: The Heavenly King on the Cherubim Throne,” in T. Ishida (ed.), Studies in the Period of David and Solomon and other Essays: International Symposium for Biblical Studies, Tokyo (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1982), 112. reference

[2] W. Zimmerli, Ezekiel 1 (trans. R. Clements; Hermenia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979). reference

[3] É. Dhorme, “Les Chérubins. I: Le Nom,” Revue Biblique 35 (1926), 328–39. reference

[4] O. Keel and C. Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses and Images of God in Ancient Israel (trans. T. H. Trapp; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998). reference

[5] Cf. regarding Mesopotamia, the depiction of Ninurta in the Ninurta hymn (VAT 9739 and 11586) and of Marduk in Enuma Elish (I 94–95). reference

[6] See, e.g., D. Foxvog, W. Heimpel and D. Kilmer, “Lamma/Lamassu A. I. Mesopotamien. Philologisch.,” RlA 6 (1980–1983), 446–453. reference